After Bye, Pitt Faces WVU Showdown

Though it's no guarantee the winner of Fridays Backyard Brawl will win the Big East, but the winner will take a major step towards it.

Pitt has endured a lot through the early days of coach Todd Graham's first season running the Panthers.

There have been crushing injuries, the most serious being running back Ray Graham's season-ending knee injury when he was second in the nation in rushing, to say nothing of four offensive linemen going down.

Quarterback Tino Sunseri has had growing pains as he learned the new system, cutting back on his productivity.

When they come out of the off-week they are enjoying after the season's first road victory -- knocking Louisville for a loop just when the Cardinals thought they were in position to possibly win the title -- Pitt will remain in the hunt.

To finish the job, they will have to win a shoot-out at West Virginia in what could be the final Backyard Brawl ever as the teams head in different directions, perhaps as early as next year with WVU hoping for an early exit as it heads to the Big 12, while Pitt will eventually land in the ACC.

If Pitt is going to succeed with games at WVU and at home against Syracuse, it is going to have to continue to get effective work from its patchwork offensive line that has just started playing well together.

"We've now had a few weeks with the same group of guys," said Graham after Louisville. "I thought we blocked really well, came off the football. Repetition in the lineup helps."

Center Ryan Turnley and tackle Greg Gaskins both were cited by Graham for their play.

"Greg Gaskins really sticks out to me. A sleeper," Graham said Monday. "Him and Turnley."

It's not much different defensively, where the defensive line has done a solid job of rushing passers all season, especially the younger players who will have to come on against a WVU team throws and throws.

"It is exciting, the power that Aaron Donald has, his potential is off the chart," Graham said on his weekly teleconference. "Then Juan Price is going to be really special. He is one of the most gifted players we have. LaQuentin (Smith) has been just phenomenal when he has been in there, and he is guy I'd have no problem playing him every snap.

"And then (Khaynin Mosley-Smith) is a guy we continue to get more snaps out of. He is an explosive guy and he is very athletic for a big guy and that bodes well for that group.

"The athleticism of those guys up front is impressive and to be so young, is exciting for the future."

--After being shut out in the Utah game, WR Devin Street has blossomed, catching 19 passes in the next three games for 289 yards and two TDs. He has become QB Tino Sunseri's go-to man.

--Since taking over at running back for the injury Ray Graham, senior Zach Brown has been a reliable replacement, mostly running inside but improving on his outside running. He 170 yards on 38 carries in three games, rushing for 84 yards in the road win against Louisville. He also has caught 17 passes for 128 yards in the three games.

BYE WEEK MISSION: Coach Todd Graham does not like to use the term bye week, a psychological ploy to keep his team practicing in the right manner.

"We basically have extra days of practice," Graham said. "We have moved on to our next game and we will have a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday type practice, the same kind of preparation as if we played Saturday."

After that, it is Sunday off and then into game preparation. Graham understands the importance of this Backyard Brawl against West Virginia, which may be the last, and wants to be extra prepared.

LOOKING AHEAD: Pitt closes the season with a chance to win or share the Big East title, but it will take some help and an upset victory over West Virginia in Morgantown. Coach Todd Graham could harp, of course, on the 2007 season when a 28.5-point underdog Pitt team stunned WVU and kept the Mountaineers from playing for the national championship.

In Morgantown, they could look at two meetings between WVU coach Dana Holgorsen and Graham. In 1970, Holgorsen was offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State and led 41-7 over Graham's Tulsa team at the half and went on to win 65-28 with 722 total yards. In 2008, when Holgorsen was at Houston as offensive coordinator, Graham was on the short end of 70-30 game, UH with 641 yards, 461 of them from quarterbacks with six TDs and no interceptions. In 2009, it was a close game with Holgorsen's Houston team winning, 46-45, QB Case Keenum hitting 40 of 60 passes for 524 yards and three TD and no interceptions. Pitt closes at home against Syracuse.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think there's no substitute for experience. In this conference we're going into November and playing for a championship. This is where it will be won and it will be important to know when to throw the ball way, how to distribute the football. It helps with the emotions of the game." -- Coach Todd Graham on how he expects QB Tino Sunseri's experience to carry him down the stretch.

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Despite injuries that have savaged its offensive line and taken away his prime offensive threat in RB Ray Graham, who was No. 2 in the nation in rushing when injured, Pitt has come on. QB Tino Sunseri has had growing pains in the offense but now seems to be at the point where he can run it behind a patchwork O-line that finally is coming together despite injuries that cost it Gs Chris Jacobson and Lucas Nix, as well as G Matt Ratheram.

It was a challenge to put it together but senior Zach Brown has filled in well for Ray Graham and freshman Isaac Bennett has shed his redshirt and contributed. Graham went down with 958 yards in eight games, along with 30 catches for 200 yards. WR Devin Street has emerged as Sunseri's top target with 39 catches while averaging 14.7 per catch and three 100-yard games while Mike Shanahan is the other top option with 30 catches, four for TD. However, in the end, everything rides on the way Sunseri handles thing and Graham is hoping his experience carries him through.

"There's no substitute for experience," Graham said. "The fact (he's) been in those situations before always helps tremendously. The biggest thing is just managing the ball."

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Pitt has an aggressive, attacking defense that harasses passers and has been able to do so without blitzing an extraordinary number of times. However, it has not advanced any further than middle of the road among Big East teams statistically. Pitt has had problems against the run, which may not be a bad thing as it comes out of the off-week to face WVU, a team that averages only 117 yards a game rushing.

The Panters have been big-time pass rushers, leading the league with 32 sacks, which will work into their favor against a WVU team that gave up five sacks to Cincinnati. Sophomore Aaron Donald has come on strongly in this area and is 13th in the nation. Pitt's secondary has improved as the season has gone on and S Andrew Taglianetti has quietly done a solid job after being forced into the starting lineup through injury. LB Max Gruder is far and away the most active tackler on the team and must be blocked.

--RB Ray Graham is out for the season with a right-knee injury. He was leading the Big East and ranked second in the nation when the injury occurred, needing just 62 yards to reach 1,000. It could have been a devastating injury but RB Zach Brown has done a solid, if unspectacular, job filling in.

--OG Lucas Nix is making progress toward returning from a Sept. 29 knee injury sustained against South Florida. Coach Todd Graham thought he would play last week against Louisville but wasn't quite ready. With two weeks between games, he is slated to return against WVU.

--OG Chris Jacobson is planning to apply for a sixth year of eligibility after the second knee injury of his career felled him on Sept. 17 and took him out for the year.

--OG Matt Rotheram was lost for the season when he broke an ankle against Connecticut on Oct. 26.

--S Jason Hendricks is the only defensive player lost for the season, which coach Todd Graham says is the reason the defense has had more consistency than the offense.

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